When we first put together our collection of scholarship on populism for free access, we hoped to help researchers connect the scholarship we have published to current elections and other major political developments. You can read our original introduction here. Our focus was on the upcoming calendar and on recent events. Nevertheless, we believe the strength of scholarship lies in exploring underlying trends and long-term causal mechanisms. We still think ‘populism’ has immense political salience. Nevertheless, we would argue that the longer-term trends are equally deserving of our attention.
Our contributors agree. As we update and expand our ‘populism’ collection, we would like to highlight specific themes that have attracted emphasis in recent submissions. One of these themes is the attack on ‘the system’ by the extremes. Mattia Zulianello tackles this issue head-on by asking how we should update our understanding of ‘anti-system’ parties in order to make that concept more relevant for contemporary empirical research. João Carvalho asks how the system can defend itself, focusing on illustrations from recent presidential elections in France. And Manès Weisskircher uses the example of municipal elections in Graz to caution that we should not rule out a return of the extreme left, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. The communist party Weisskircher studies is not a threat to Austrian democracy; it may even preferable from a system-stability perspective than the resurgent Freedom Party (FPO), with which it competes. The point we want to make is simply that voting for the extremes is becoming more and more consistently attractive.
The reason for this change in electoral behavior may be related to economic performance. Voters are clearly frustrated with the consequences of the recent economic and financial crisis, and more frustrated voters are more likely to engage in protest. That is what Alper H. Yagci finds through a large-N analysis of ‘Occupy’ protests across the globe. That argument is compelling. How it translates into decisions at the ballot box are not always easy to assess. It is dangerous to draw a straightforward one-to-one correspondence. This is true particularly when we think about abstention rates. Daniel Stockemer has done a comprehensive meta-analysis of research on turnout and cannot find clear and consistent causal relationships. Too much, he argues, turns out to be context specific. Christopher Kirkland and Matthew Wood would agree. Using data from recent elections in the United Kingdom, they find that the relationship between perceived legitimacy and turnout levels is variable and ‘socially constructed’. Clearly this poses a challenge for large-N research.
The challenge is not limited to big questions like ‘legitimacy’ or the economic determinants of protest. We also have to consider the way politicians adapt to changing requirements in the electoral marketplace. Marina Costa Lobo provides an expansive review of recent literature on the personalization of politics – both on the part of politicians and as a heuristic device for voters to use in choosing between competing alternatives. Another more complex factor is the role of the international system. If democracy weakens in one country, that may have an influence on the rest. The influence will be particularly strong if the country in question is powerful. There is nothing new about this prospect. Being well-established, however, does not make the transnational influence of democratic failure any less important. Jørgen Møller, Svend-Erik Skaaning and Jakob Tolstrup explain why in their analysis of the interwar period. They reveal of pattern of democratic regression that we can only describe as worrying in the present context.
While these new contributions do not focus directly on ‘populism’, we hope you will find them both interesting and relevant as part of our collection.
– Katharine Adeney and Erik Jones, January 2018.